May 27, 2017
 
Nonprofits Learn How to Tell Untold Stories at Data Day 2013

By Kat Friedrich

June 24, 2013 — Data can be integrated seamlessly into stories that benefit communities, nonprofits and journalists were told Friday at a conference that demonstrated how they can tap into information sources about communities whose voices are often unheard.

Data Day 2013, held at Northeastern University in Boston, showcased how successful data-based stories engage people on an emotional level.

The morning keynote showed how a team from The Boston Globe accomplished this goal while writing about the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. Their finished project, 68 Blocks, includes photos, graphs, stories, videos, and an e-book.

“It took months and months to win even the beginnings of trust,” said senior assistant metro editor Steve Wilmsen. After hearing about how a 14-year-old boy was shot, Wilmsen wanted to “pierce the veil of preconceptions” surrounding the neighborhood. As the finished project said, “In a neighborhood known for gunfire, it’s easy to overlook beauty.”

The newspaper sourced the “Voices of Bowdoin-Geneva” montage from community pictures found on Instagram. The images show graves, graduations, police, friendships, and family stories.

A survey asked youth whether they thought they would ever spend time in jail. 85.7% said, “No.” 91.7% of the respondents said they had not been in any gangs during the previous year.

The newspaper placed a massive public records request. In the finished project, a map of quality of life indicators shows problems with housing and basic utility services are common in the neighborhood. A second map shows homicides and shootings.

In the workshop “Engage Youth through Data and Mapping,” teenagers from Urbano Project described making public art to communicate data. They made sculptures dramatizing statistics about the MBTA, including crime figures and wait times. They wore the finished sculptures to a festival and talked with passersby about the data.

The teenagers used orange and black plastic discs and small metal weights to build wearable sculptures showing the transit statistics. They also attached painted whistles to t-shirts to depict a graph of various types of crime. All of the materials came from a recycling center in Lynn.

“We were pleasantly surprised by how transparent the T is with their data,” said Alison Kotkin, a staffer from Urbano Project.

How can nonprofits get started working with community data? The panel “Storming the Gates of City Hall and Corporate America: Open Data vs. Privacy and Community Change” provided many tips. Professor Michael Johnson of UMass-Boston said community organizations can access data and assistance through sources such as: David Luberoff, a senior project advisor at Harvard University, encouraged Boston-area nonprofits to sign up on the BARI website to connect and collaborate.

Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, and The Boston Foundation co-hosted the conference.

Kat Friedrich is a freelance writer and web editor specializing in energy, environmental, and health issues. To contact her, visit katfriedrich.com.

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